Hannah Dennison on ‘Murder at Honeychurch Hall’
We’re big fans of Hannah Dennison and her Vicky Hill mystery series, which chronicles the adventures of an aspiring investigative reporter stuck writing obituaries in a small town in England. Now Hannah takes us in a new direction with Murder at Honeychurch Hall, the first in a cozy mystery series set against the backdrop of Agatha Christie’s beloved Devon and featuring television celebrity Kat Stanford. Hannah stopped by to answer our questions about this new series.
Murder at Honeychurch Hall looks like a delicious treat, particularly for fans of Downton Abbey. What would you like to tell readers about this new series?
The idea for the series first came to me when my own widowed mother rashly purchased a hugely impractical wing of a country house in Devon. My sister and I were horrified. It was so impractical and of course, the place was falling down. My mother was adamant that she was “going to do what she liked” now that she no longer had to answer to anyone—including us! Mum is now 84 and still lives there and still loves it. I thought the mother-daughter dynamic would make an interesting backdrop for an amateur sleuth duo. It also gave me the opportunity to explore what it’s like to face new and uncertain beginnings as a widow and as a single woman approaching 40.
I based Honeychurch Hall itself on Hillersdon House, an old country estate I knew from my teenage years in Devon. I’ve always been fascinated by these vast “Downton Abbey” country estates where the same families have lived and served both upstairs and down for centuries. Although times have changed, a line still exists between the upper and lower classes and it’s those differences that have been great fun to write. My characters are perhaps a little more quirky than those at Downton Abbey but I do have a feisty, octogenarian countess who still rides side-saddle, a precocious seven year old who is obsessed with the famous fighter pilot called Biggles and a housekeeper who can afford to wear designer shoes. Having lived in a small village, I can honestly say that it takes about thirty years to be accepted as a “local” so obviously, when Kat Stanford and her mother Iris move down from London they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms. Needless to say that when the Russian nanny goes missing, suspicion falls on the newcomers.
Murder at Honeychurch Hall is set against the perfect backdrop for a mystery…Agatha Christie’s Devon! And this is actually where you lived a bit with your own family. We’d love to know how living under her shadow influenced your own path as a mystery writer.
My family still lives in Devon and my mother still volunteers as a docent for the National Trust at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s summer home. In fact, whenever I’ve felt discouraged about my writing or in need of a pep talk, I call Mum. She promptly reels off dozens of Agatha Christie tips that never fail to put me back on track. One of my favorites comes from a tape recording of an interview Agatha Christie had with a BBC radio programme in 1955. When asked to describe her writing method, Agatha Christie said “… the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while. Then, when you’ve got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing!”
Another time Agatha Christie mentioned to a friend that she’d “finished her manuscript.” The friend said, “Good! Can I read it?” To which Agatha Christie replied, “Oh … I haven’t written it but I’ve finished it.”
I think, if anything, I find that this chance to tap into Agatha Christie’s writing methods via my mother has been an unexpected gift!
What can Vicky Hill fans expect from your new heroine, Kat Stanford? And do you think Kat and Vicky would be friends?
I love both my heroines! I hope Vicky fans won’t feel Kat Stanford is too sensible. Naturally, she’s intelligent and beautiful and is nicknamed “Rapunzel” because of her long hair. Of course, Kat is a good fifteen years older than Vicky,and yet Kat possesses the same focus on her career as an antique specialist as Vicky does in her mission to become the next Anderson Cooper. I think there are elements in Vicky that Kat would identify with—they are both only children, and in many ways, have had a lonely childhood. Both have one parent with … shall we say … “baggage.” In Vicky’s case, her father is a criminal on the run from Interpol; in Kat’s—she’s shocked to discover that her mother has been living a lie by writing romance novels in secret under the pseudonym of Krystalle Storm. I think the “girls” would definitely bond.
You have a day job at an advertising agency and you write two mystery series. How do you find balance?
Balance? I had to look that word up. Just kidding. Finding a balance is definitely a challenge, especially since I have a weekly commute from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles. I spend a lot of time on an airplane so I’ve learned to write anywhere. I am incredibly disciplined. I’ve learned to recognize my natural rhythms which are writing early in the mornings—i.e. from 5:30 onwards. When I’m in the final weeks of turning in a book it’s not unusual for me to set my alarm for 4:20 AM.
What can we expect next from you?
I’m finishing up a 5th Vicky Hill for Constable & Robinson and I’ve just turned in the second Honeychurch Hall that will be out May 2015. St. Martin’s Press has also recently ordered books 3 and 4 of the Honeychurch Hall series, so I guess I better get cracking.
What books are sitting on your own nightstand?
Agatha Christie! I’m halfway through Endless Night – one of her last books and one that Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard says was his favorite. I also have a nonfiction book called Women of Devon by Todd Gray (both my series are set in the West Country).
Thank you so much for inviting me today. It was a pleasure to answer your questions.
Learn more and order your copy of Murder at Honeychurch Hall here.
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